Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cake for the Soul

For this I will extol you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.               Psalm 18:49

It isn’t widely known, but many of our Halloween traditions come from the Church.  More precisely, they came about as a result of the Christian conversion of the Celtic people centuries ago.  The original harvest festival called Samhain included bonfires to strengthen the waning sun and costumes to frighten away evil spirits.  The Christian teachings suggested instead that the fires would keep the devil away, and the masks became religious parades in honor of the saints.  The reverence toward ancestors long past became the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, on November 1 and 2 respectively.  All Saints was also known as All Hallows – Hallow meaning “holy” referring to the saints.  All Hallows Eve became Halloween.

My favorite example of pagan tradition turning Christian is the story of Soul Cakes.  It had been believed that on the night of Samhain, spirits of departed loved ones roamed the earth and would visit the homes of their living family.  Families would prepare feasts in expectation of these ancestral spirits, hoping to offer them sustenance for their travels in the world beyond.  As the celebration of All Souls became more popular, the cooking was directed toward a different recipient.  Soul Cakes were made to give to the poor who knocked on the door.  They were offered in exchange for prayers for the departed.  In this way the tradition became a charitable one, replacing the food for the dead and ensuring enough to eat for the living.

Over time, the tradition changed.  Eventually youth would begin going door to door, singing “souling” songs and asking for food.  Over time, this practice would become what we now know as trick-or-treating.  So now you know who to blame when you get the dentist’s bill.

I love the story of Halloween. I am enchanted by the cultural and historical aspects of this strange holiday, and charmed by the fascinating and colorful images of a people who, so many centuries ago, built the traditions we still enjoy. I love the story of the Church and its gentle (also successful) way of bringing others to the faith. It was done without forcing a new story on an ancient people or attempting to slash them from their traditions. While remaining true to our own faith, our predecessors were unafraid to embrace the beauty of other cultures and to create from them elements in the worship of Christ. We are richer for it.
Blessed eating!

This recipe comes from a story at the National Public Radio website.  Read it here.

Soul Cakes
Soul cakes get stale within a day or two, so eat 'em while they're hot. Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground fresh if possible
1/2 teaspoon salt             Generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk                        1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar                     2 egg yolks                         
1/2 cup currants

For the Glaze:
1 egg yolk, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork. Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.

One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.

Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently.

Decorate the soul cakes with currants and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Serve warm, with cold pumpkin juice. – from

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